Monday, January 30, 2012

Cross-country skiing in New England

Did New England ever really have the winters depicted in popular myth? If they ever occurred, they don't anymore. We can't even seem to get an average winter most years, let alone an epic one.

Whether the decline in cross-country skiing is really due to changing climate or to a long-overdue acknowledgment that snow conditions are normally inadequate south of the mountains, the sport is clearly dwindling. The people who love it love it, but fewer and fewer people are falling in love with it. It's too unreliable.

Resorts in the mountains will still be able to provide skiing for something like a full season. Skiing belongs in the mountains. We may revise our standard of what a full season means, but mountain weather will probably produce snow for many years after it has become rare around the middle and southern part of New Hampshire and all of southern New England. One or two big storms every couple of years won't be enough to support sophisticated grooming equipment at a touring center if the rest of the time they get meager slush, rain and mud. Sliding around on cross-country skis will be a novelty, not a lifestyle.

Every time we get a storm, calls come in. People want to believe. Personally I feel more and more like I don't have time to waste encouraging people to pursue an activity they won't be able to keep doing regularly even if they want to.  With all the uncertainty about the nation's and the world's economic future, should people really be wasting money on a mere sport, and a dying one at that?

The ski industry says, "The heck with that! You just need to buy more stuff! If your stuff isn't working, it's the wrong stuff! Buy different stuff! You'll get to use it eventually!" Bless their little hearts. Everyone wants to keep their thing going as long as possible. I'd like to believe the climate could settle down again and that people could prosper enough to play out in it. I'm just afraid that for most of the past four decades we've already been on stolen time.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ski Repair

Delamination is a common problem. Skiers are always coming in with one end or the other of their ski bases flapping loose.

Today's victim needed a six-inch section of the tip re-fastened. How to clamp the radius of the repaired tip?
Use the other tip. I waxed the surface of the ski so the glue would not adhere to it. Then with light but firm pressure I clamped the sandwich together. We'll see how that goes.

Last year we had a repair on which we tried to see how many clamps we could use.
It was another tip repair, but we either did not think to use the other ski as a mold or we couldn't. In that case we used a lot of small blocks to secure sections of the curve.

For adhesive we use Gorilla Glue. It's easier to work with than epoxy and has a shorter curing time. Instead of mixing a batch that might be too big or too small we just squeeze out what we need. Not much adheres well to plastic, even epoxy, so we might as well work with something that's fairly easy to get along with.

Saturday, January 07, 2012


Sundays are so tedious they've started to slop over into Saturday.

Sundays have their own time warp. On a Sunday afternoon, a flurry of activity that would eat up an hour or two on another day will prove to have expended about 10 minutes at best when you check the clock after it ends. This extended boredom has started to attack Saturday as well.

The ground is bare. Hardly any cross-country ski areas have any open trails. The next storm is shaping up to be warm and wet, not deep and white. We lost Christmas week. Now we're fixing to lose Martin Luther King weekend. Our big winter earning periods are getting hammered.

Aside from a bit of maintenance on rental skates and one or two out-of-season bike repairs, we have little to do but brainstorm new directions for this business or new businesses in case this one is too damaged to survive.

If I had known that winter was going to die out in my lifetime, I would not have wasted time learning to ski. I enjoyed cross-country and backcountry skiing skiing immensely, but I would have put the time into bicycle-related skills and boating. I might not even have moved to New Hampshire, although I have enjoyed mountain hiking and rock climbing. For all that I get to do THAT I might as well have stayed on the immediate coast and stuck to maritime pursuits.

Chaos being chaos, you can't change one variable without affecting a whole slew of other ones. Parallel universes are fun to imagine sometimes, but I happen to be aware of only this one. So I chart my course from this point on.

One thing's for sure: this is a great year not to be at Jackson Ski Touring. While that's true of any year, it is particularly true in a year like this, that far exceeds even the disastrous season of 2005-'06. It was a major financial burden to maintain the inventory and staff that Jackson required on the off chance that we might get snow. Fortunately, that bad winter afflicted enough of the country to make the ski industry lenient about credit terms. Even so, the scars have lasted long enough to be considered permanent. This hideous winter only gouges deeper at the same injuries. The devastation of the ski business is once again widespread enough to keep our creditors from sending the leg-breakers after us, but that indulgence is little help when the changing climate seems well on the way to destroying our whole sport.

Cross-country skiing was a beautiful experience. I can't say that any of the memories make me feel like I'm back there doing it, but I can appreciate how much fun it was while it lasted. No single activity can equal it for full-body and full-mind exercise. Because of that, nothing can replace it and its skills cannot be applied to anything else. Parts can be applied to many things, but, without skiing to reinforce them, they will have to be maintained piecemeal.

In 2005-'06, bitter, paranoid and angry after the cowardly treachery of persons still unidentified in Jackson, I enjoyed the winter without skiing. I rode my bike while I watched the addicted skiers curdle with frustration. I felt as if nature itself had jumped in on my side. Now, as cross-country skiing seems to be lurching toward extinction, the fact that I don't get to do it simply merges with the way all cross-country skiers are having it stripped from their lives.

From a business standpoint it's a bitch that we're stuck with all the ski gear in our inventory. There's an investment we will never recoup if snow has really gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo bird. If winter really is just another casualty of human folly, all business related to it will suffer.

I can build and repair bicycles. I can get used to having slow, quiet winters in which to prepare for busy, active summers, at least for as long as I am able to be active at all. I decided in 2005 that I could live without skiing. I still skied as much as I could, because it's fun and good for you, but I knew I could let it go when the time came. Has the time come? We shall see. It seems to have come for me, anyway, given the needs of the business and the rest of my life. Whatever I do with myself after whatever happens to the business where I currently work, I will not invest anything in the future of cross-country skiing. I don't think it has one. Not until the collapse of industrial society allows the climate to rebalance itself in however many hundreds or thousands of years that will take.

Mind you I will be content to let the winter make a fool of me by delivering commercial quantities of snow to save us. I still advise against investing heavily in cross-country skiing, though. I'm afraid it's really finished, for the most part.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Hotbox Backlash

Last week the SkiPost e-newsletter had this item about the practice of saturating ski bases with wax by the slow-bake method known as hot boxing or heat boxing. The term heat boxing has emerged recently to differentiate the ski prep technique from the pot smoking technique also called hot boxing, in which smoker or smokers indulge their habit in a purposely confined space.

How to Hot Box?

[A reader wrote]"You referred to proper & improper hot boxing. I have a hot box of my own construction but I have never seen any real guidelines for how to best use it. I keep the temperature at 120 - 130 degrees (Fahrenheit) for about 6 hours. It has a fan that continually circulates the air. How does this sound?"

[Ski Post answered]First of all most ski manufacturers do not suggest skier hot box their skis. [emphasis mine]

While an iron exerts heat to the base, the hot box exerts heat to the entire ski. It can do nothing to improve a ski, over normal waxing done properly and with patience, but can weaken the epoxy and alter a ski camber if the heat gets out of control.

That being said many people and ski shops hot box.

To do it with the least risk
1) The base needs to be open and not sealed so it can accept the wax easily. (Stone grinding to achieve a fresh open base is another issue)
2) The max temp at any point in the box should not exceed 55C (130F). Some boxes have great fluctuations in their temps throughout the box.
3) A wax with a melting point at 55C needs to be used. Not many waxes are actually molten at this low temp. They may be soft but they are not molten. Start suggests Service Wax LF for its unique double molten points one just below 57 and one at and one at 120C.
4) Melt wax onto base.
5) Leave in hot box for as short a period as possible. Less than 2 hours should be sufficient. The base is only a couple of mm thick and will absorb wax quickly or not at all.
6) Realize this is speaking from the standpoint of the ski manufactures.
7) This is not speaking on behalf of the Hot box and Hot bag manufactures who would argue differently.

I hope this helps.


We try to respond to new information to improve the service we offer at our shop. So far, our research has not turned up any service providers who have cut their heat box times significantly. Many recommend warming the skis for as much as 12 hours. Most agree on the temperature range, averaging 50-55C and never exceeding 60C. According to SkiPost, one should never heat skis as high as 60C, let alone leave them there for 50 minutes to an hour, as some service centers advertise.

Many heat box providers do acknowledge that extended heating can affect some skis.

I was initially skeptical of the heat box compared to ironing. Even when I accepted the idea of heat boxing, it was more as a time-saver and basically harmless rather than outright superior to ironing as some proponents were saying. I still feel that way about prepping new skis. Much of the time spent prepping new skis would have been spent ironing in and scraping off numerous applications of wax just to achieve maximum saturation of the base material.

As with most technical arguments in skiing, there's a lot of opinion and very little real science. Experts apply some general principles based on one or two variables rather than all possible variables and then issue blanket statements. For instance, SkiPost cites the fact that the base material is only a couple of millimeters thick to support the statement that less than two hours of heating should be enough for complete wax absorption. There's no consideration of base density, which can vary with the quality level of the ski, and no supporting experimentation to test whether the wax penetration really is complete. Toko did provide data on wax absorption based on actually shaving down the base material to see how far the wax had gone at different times and temperatures. Another tester claimed to have weighed the skis to determine how much wax had been added by a box versus an iron.

In the end, the statement that ski manufacturers do not recommend hot boxing may come from the legal department rather than anyone in the company who actually skis or develops equipment. If the manufacturer gets behind a procedure that might damage some skis they could face possible aggressive warranty claims. I don't see how it would turn into a very expensive problem for the ski company, since the cases would never involve a big enough damage award to interest much of a lawyer, but why not nip it in the bud? It only takes a short verbal statement to protect the ski company from ANY such claims. So there it is.

All this fog leaves the individual skier and the small shop to decide for themselves about the relative risks and merits of letting your skis get baked. I still lean toward the "mostly harmless" theory.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Commercial Expertise

"You had some purple ski goggles with a picture of Lindsey Vonn on them. Did they get sold?" the customer asked.

The goggles had sold. The customer left the counter to browse around other displays.

It's only a matter of luck that I know who Lindsey Vonn is. I barely do. I just happen to recognize the name from some downhill ski coverage I caught somewhere along the line. It made me notice the difference between the expertise of real experience as opposed to commercial expertise: knowing the trends and buzz words your customers are likely to use before they come in and use them on you.

In my ideal life I would spend a lot of time actually skiing. At one time the ideal and the real coincided enough to give me a solid amount of experience I could use to help less experienced skiers make good choices selecting skis for groomed or off-trail use. This kind of expertise is almost useless in a commercial setting. This is the point the management of Jackson Ski Touring was trying to make when they kept trying to get me to spend a lot less time trying to educate customers and a lot more time separating them more quickly from their money and shoveling them out of the lodge. A boring expert, no matter how helpful, is a lot less attractive than a cheerful, fashion-conscious servant who knows exactly what the customer is talking about at any level and has a quick solution for a price, ready to deploy.

Mind you, in the heyday of the servant class their cheerful demeanor hid all manner of scheming. That almost did not matter to the ruling class as long as no one gave them any attitude. The commercial expert needs a touch more showmanship than a mere servant, but the facade is still more important than actual stick time with the product being sold.

Here in Wolfe City the clientele is a bit less high strung and the management is as woefully unfashionable as I am. We're all stupid enough to believe that actually skiing counts for a lot and that the truth often trumps the misleading presentations of the industry that feeds off of the activity. No doubt that explains a lot about our financial circumstances. The poor bastards hired someone to whom principle matters. You know THAT always leads to the poor house.

At this point no one is skiing much. One wonders whether we're seeing the quick end to the cross-country ski era in the United States. If we don't get some winter soon we might be better off making funky furniture out of the rack full of weird, colored sticks in the showroom and devoting ourselves to bicycling year-round. That's actually a diverse enough industry to support many points of view and it doesn't depend on a very narrow and increasingly rare range of conditions to survive.